Time to get our bearings on economic development

The impending demise of the Lowcountry Economic Network does not mean the end of economic development efforts in Beaufort County.

It can mean a fresh approach to economic development, with an emphasis on regional prospects.

Two studies, one approved and one requested, could provide insight into what we're doing right, what we're doing wrong and where we go from here.

The Lowcountry Economic Alliance has selected an Austin, Texas, firm to study the region's business-recruitment strategy. Avalanche Consulting will work with site selection firm McCallsum Sweeney of Greenville on "target industry strategy" for Beaufort and Jasper counties. The six-month project is expected to cost $116,900.

The team recently completed a five-year initiative for the Charleston Regional Development Alliance and has been hired for similar work for the Miami-Dade County economic development group.

In addition, a Beaufort County task force on economic development, has asked for $50,000 to hire a firm to study the county's job creation efforts. It would include surveying employers and residents, comparing the county's strategy against a handful of outside economic-development groups, and analyzing the county's business climate, infrastructure and mix of industry. A second phase, estimated to cost $97,500, would assess the county's competitiveness and explore the industries and companies the area should target.

The first question to ask is whether we need both studies. We could move forward with the broader alliance study, which promises more depth, detail and a regional approach, and drop the smaller Beaufort County-focused study.

The Lowcountry Economic Alliance is a two-county endeavor, although Beaufort County's funding will need to be sorted out if the network ceases operations at the end of the month as anticipated. The county's contribution has been the staff of the Lowcountry Economic Network. The county has been paying about $270,000 a year to support the network.

As for the Beaufort Commerce Park, whose foreclosure brought all this to the forefront:

The lending banks' indication that they are willing to negotiate with the network on the $2.5 million due on the park is a distraction, as is the possibility of annexing the property into the city of Beaufort. More important is the work of figuring out how to successfully approach economic diversification in this region and make sure we seek the right kind of business prospects.

Resolving the network's debt does not guarantee a successful venture, nor does it answer the question of whether the site is a suitable location for an industrial park, no matter who owns it.

It's difficult to see how annexing the property into the city will make that much difference to business prospects. Network officials said they wanted the county to buy it because public ownership was needed to make it work. They said they needed to be able to give away property or offer deeply discounted prices.

If true, annexing without shifting it to public ownership wouldn't address that. City officials haven't indicated any interest in buying the property.

They do say Beaufort can provide a friendlier business environment and a more predictable permitting process than the county. But it's hard to see why that would be the case. The county has worked to streamline the development approval process for the park and has invested a lot of money in infrastructure there.

City officials might want to wait for the strategic study to see where and whether the park fits into that scheme.

Let's take a deep breath, get our bearings and develop a coordinated strategy for economic development.